Thursday, August 11, 2011

Remember This?

It's over 10 years old. The Alans (Keyes, Dershowitz) debate religion in American Public life. It's very amusing. I was not surprised to find it on YouTube. I love YouTube; it's got so much.


Tim Polack said...

One question that comes out of these opening statements is: is George Washington correct, that we cannot have morality without religion as Dershowitz states? Keyes responds that he's misquoted Washington (a quote that Dershowitz got from Senator Lieberman), and he did misquote him. But substantially he did not. If you read the context of the quote, Dershowitz's statement, is consistent with Washington's intent - that he believes that morality should not be disconnected with its religious underpinnings. And therefore Dershowitz must say that Washington is wrong if he is to say that religion is not necessary for the morality of our nation.

Washington (in his farewell address - 1796) states that reason and experience are the reasons why morality will not survive without a religious underpinning. Maybe he's thinking of the French Revolution, or other examples where religion had recently become separated from its religious mores?

But whatever it was, I do think that Washington had a good vantage point from which to make such a call. Now, after more than two hundred years of a growing divide between religion and the morality of our country, has that history shown further that we need religion to be the foundation upon which morality rests? Or can we continue to further separate the two and expect a sound morality to prevail in our country? And if so, what morality would that be? I know, divisive questions, but critical ones that I believe speak to this blog's purpose.

Jonathan Rowe said...


That's a good point. Keyes seems like he was trying to play "gotcha" with Dershowitz by splitting hairs (Keyes is very good at that and tried it on Obama who saw thru it).

What Dershowitz and Lieberman quoted was a far more accurate representation of what GW said than what I've seen many conservative Christians write. The phony "it's impossible to govern without God and the Bible" quotation attributed to GW (I'm almost certain) originated when some pious historian of an earlier era read GW's remarks and characterized/summarized/paraphrased it as such. (Then a later historian mistakenly thought the paraphrase was GW's own words.) Keyes' interpretation is actually one that is more generous to a "secular" reading of George Washington.

Tim Polack said...


Agreed, Keyes remarks about the quote do allow for a more secular reading of it, but as I was listening to it, I was thinking that Keyes possibly forgot the sentence that comes right after it (in GW's farewell address), and thus screws up his explanation. I don't know. But you have to think he would have been prepared for this debate - and he's certainly a knowledgeable person. It makes me wonder. But my guess is that he was too focused on the quote itself and taking the opportunity to correct his opponent and thus missed the surrounding context.

Dershowitz's misquote - even though he get's the explanation right - is worse I think since the word "caution" is critical to that sentence. Guess he shouldn't rely on politicians for his quotes. :)

But also Jon, isn't the phony quote you mention mainly what GW IS saying? While I doubt he would say "God and the Bible", the quote from his Farewell Address essentially says that, just without specifying a religion. But GW clearly was in the Christian camp. So while the conservatives may use a phony quote, it's intent is accurate. No?

Jonathan Rowe said...

I see GW -- like the other FFs -- as believing in what Cardinal Dulles referred to as the "Deist" minimum with that quote. Perhaps a better term would be theist minimum. That is "religion" meant an overruling Providence and future state of reward and punishment. If we wanted to narrow "religion" to "Christianity" with GW I'd say it would apply only if "Christianity" very broadly and ecumenically applies. For instance, I've read just about every single letter of GW's to the various "Christian" churches at the time and he likes them all, even the Universalists who denied Hell (or eternal Hell) and the Swedenborgs (who qualify as a "cult" to many conservative evangelicals; the Swedenborgs are somewhat analogous to the Mormons in this regard).

Tim Polack said...

"Perhaps a better term would be theist minimum. That is "religion" meant an overruling Providence and future state of reward and punishment."

I think that the problem with classifying GW in this way misses some of his words and actions parituclarly during the War of Independance when he links the Continental Army's success to it's Christian morality. Steve Waldman (in Founding Faith, p. 71) sums these action up by saying "It appears that Washington felt the invocations of God were sincere and not just meant to rally the colonists." So there seems to be a bit more with GW than just an overruling Providence and future state of rewards.

"If we wanted to narrow "religion" to "Christianity" with GW I'd say it would apply only if "Christianity" very broadly and ecumenically applies."

I do think GW was, in a unique way, an ecumenist. Having myself been in both the Protestant and Catholic churches, ecumenism is something that is important to me. And in a certain way, I see GW playing the role of an ecumenist more and more as he became the pivitol figure in the founding starting possibly with the Catholics in Quebec. One of the things an ecumenist does is find the positive in each Christian sect. Now certainly much of this may have been part of GW's role as a military and political leader. But if we believe him as sincere, then its not to much to say that he really did see goodness in each of the various and fringe sects that you mention.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Well the way I read what he wrote in 1. the Farewell Address, in conjunction with 2. when he promoted religion/Christianity to his troops for the success of the war, 3. what he wrote the Native Indians, and 4. what he wrote to the churches, is that whenever he talks up Christianity it's ALWAYS for its good effect on society. That is, GW had a instrumentalizing or utilitarian appreciation for what Christianity did. He didn't seem at ALL concerned that people's souls were saved. Or protecting the the "Truth" of Christianity against other "false" religions. Rather that Christianity produced good citizens because it made men more moral. If you view Christianity that way, as I think GW did, you could see it as a great thing and at the same time see other religions as great as well. And if you are looking for good effects and you see good effects in all the sects, that fits perfectly with an extremely generous, doctrinally lax, ecumenicism.

GW was quite clear about this in his letter to the Universalists.

"It gives me the most sensible pleasure to find, that, in our nation, however different are the sentiments of citizens on religious doctrines, they generally concur in one thing; for their political professions and practices are almost universally friendly to the order and happiness of our civil institutions. I am also happy in finding this disposition particularly evinced by your society."

Jonathan Rowe said...

One other thing: This is a bit complicated. GW wrote a lot on religion and gave some minimums and some clues; but for those of us looking for a more comprehensive creed we can run into trouble when we start putting together the pieces of the puzzle the way we see it, but others want those pieces to go the other way.

I know more orthodox Christians will put those pieces together to try to make what GW said "fit" with orthodox Christianity; Gregg Frazer observed a creed that united J. Adams, Jefferson and Franklin and then puts the pieces of Washington's, Madison's (and others) puzzle together more to accord with their works oriented creed.

Re salvation, after I wrote my last comment, I do remember a few vague, bare references to what might be salvation/true religion in GW's works. And it entirely accords with the works oriented scheme of salvation as articulated by J. Adams, Jefferson and Franklin that men were saved by their good works not faith/grace. And this in turn accords with instrumentalizing Christianity into a generic, moralizing, works oriented civil religion, stripped of its orthodox doctrines. As such other non-Christian religions become "Christianity" in all but name only if they produce good works.

This is without question a minimum that J. Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin believed in. And I see what GW, JM and others "fit" perfectly as well.

Tim Polack said...

Jon, I appreciate you're responses. I think you know that I've followed this blog decently for awhile, and while I don't post much, I have read enough to know you're a fair and thourough person. So, on with it...

"whenever he talks up Christianity it's ALWAYS for its good effect on society"

Well, yes, that's because he wants to keep his thoughts on religion as private as possible. But to completely dissasociate his words to what he actually believes would be throwing out the baby with the bath water. I agree with Brian Trubbs in a number of his comments in the blog post on Oct. 13, 2008 - "Was George Washington an "Infidel"?" In effect, I can give some on GW being a Protestant Christian. After reading a bunch more, I can see it may be a reach to claim that on the evidence we have of GW. And further, what we do have I can agree puts him somewhere in the middle of the Deist - Christian categories.

I'm also with Brian (assuming he's still there three years later?), in that I would hope we could find a smoking gun, just for different reasons as yourself. As you also tried to find that gun. :)

The reason I don't side with you more in your categorization and explanations, is, that while you certainly have done you're homework, your arguments often seem to lack un understanding of what it means to be a person of faith. Not that you don't understand it intellectually you certainly do more than most. And possible have lived it out at some point in your life? But there is something lacking in the essence when you say things such as "He didn't seem at ALL concerned that people's souls were saved. Or protecting the the "Truth" of Christianity against other "false" religions." While these things are important aspect to many Christians, they are not exactly necessary to being Christians. There are many areas of focus that we can have and feel led to have. Most Christians in his era, while dissapointed he didn't take the Echarist, were glad he went to church and accepted this at face value. There is more on the Echarist, but I'll hold off for now since this is going to be a longer post.

Tim Polack said...

Ran out of room...

I don't know if this will help to clarify what I'm saying, but I'll try. GW's role as military and political leader would have certainly excussed him from most Christian's views from having to also be concerned about those two aspects - spreading the faith and carrying on it's teachings. I'm not saying this a black and white thing, but I am saying don't overload expectations of what someone in GW's role should be/do as a Christian, when he is clearly doing good in the world through his station in life. He's no Thomas More of course in his strong religious position and statement, but few in elevated positions are...very few. And few have been elevated to to such high positions as Washington attained either.

To be more specific about other points made here, I think you are reading too much into his letter to the Universalists. You are trying to pull out meaning about GW's personal beliefs, when I don't think that info's really there for the taking. I see him serving his role as President with the utmost effectiveness. But my sense is I don't think that utilitarian method truly gets at his PERSONAL beliefs. Does it say something about them in a side manner? Maybe, but we really shouldn't try and read so much out of a clearly official correspondense.

And finally, regarding the works centered area, I think it's highly possible that High Anglicanism would not have frowned on 'works' as most other Protestant sects did. Works and faith is very central in orthodox Christianity, I found the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justirication a help in understanding the different views between works and faith between Catholics and Lutherans. I could be off here, but until I see evidence to the contrary, I'm not buying that works automatically put these founders, at least GW, into a civil religion. Also, I couldn't find out if works was accepted as a theology in high church Anglicanism in America. But because of it's strong similarity with Catholicism, I'm guessing it maybe was there, at least for some time?

Jonathan Rowe said...

"And further, what we do have I can agree puts him somewhere in the middle of the Deist - Christian categories."

Okay we agree here. And re the "civil religion," it's my claim that the key Founders -- the first 4 Presidents -- personally, devoutly believed in the civil religion which is somewhere between Deism and Christianity. It's a works oriented non-Trinitarian theology that more "fits" with the demands of civic republicanism than grace oriented orthodox Trinitarian Christianity.

Re separating responsibilities of a civic leader from your personal theology, do keep in mind that, before the American Founding, church and state were invariably connected such that heads of state had as part of their official responsibilities, in some sense to defend "true" religion of a sectarian nature.

That the early Presidents were these uber-ecumenical, latitudinarian Christian-Deist types who, publicly, were utterly indifferent towards doctrine (while a few of them privately, despised orthodox Trinitarian doctrine) made them the perfect candidates to lead the new nation where the sects were divided, bitterly so.

I think most of us agree on the 1. sect division thing; 2. that America's Founding political theology was something non-sectarian, and 3. there are lowest common denominators that united the people in a public theology. But the question is, what forms the content of those lowest common denominators. God belief? Sure. Even Providential God belief. But "a general Christianity?" Maybe (in name). But not if the Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, have any proper part of the non-negotiable definition of "Christianity." And if you strip Christianity of its orthodox tenets that make it so exclusive, we are left with a definition of "Christianity" that defines as a "good person," (regardless of whether one even thinks of oneself as a "Christian") exactly as John Adams explicitly defined it.

“I believe with Justin Martyr, that all good men are Christians, and I believe there have been, and are, good men in all nations, sincere and conscientious.”

– John Adams to Samuel Miller, July 8, 1820.

Brian Tubbs said...

I remember watching this debate on C-SPAN back at the time it occurred. Thanks for pulling it out of the "attic." :-)